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Catching the Wind in Caves

Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota is home to one of the world’s longest cave systems, known for its honeycomb-like formations and more.


Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota is spread over 13,699 hectares, encompassing the grassy prairies of the Grand Plains and the ponderosa pine forest of the Black Hills.

The park was established in January 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt and named after the cave that lies beneath the park: Wind Cave. It was the first U.S. national park created to protect a cave.

Visitors to Wind Cave National Park are invited to explore both its diverse mix of  habitats above the ground as well as the unusual attractions underground.

The park’s unique ecosystem, a combination of prairie grasslands and ponderosa pine forests, is host to a variety of plant and animal species. Since about 60 percent of the park’s area is open grasslands, animals like bison, prairie dogs and mule deer are found in large numbers, and can be easily seen by visitors. Other bird and animal species inhabiting the parks include prairie falcons, meadowlarks, nuthatches, wild turkeys, pronghorns, raccoons and elk.

Beyond the rich flora and fauna lies the park’s main attraction—Wind Cave. A complex maze of about 225 kilometers of explored passages makes it one of the world’s longest cave systems.

Its most distinctive feature is the wind that blows in and out of it, equalizing atmospheric pressure of the passages inside and the atmosphere outside. The discovery of the entrance to the cave is usually credited to the Lakota Indians, who lived on Black Hills. They spoke about “a hole that breathes cool air” and considered it sacred. Later, in 1881, American brothers Tom and Jesse Bingham noticed the cave entrance due to a loud whistling noise coming from it. The wind was so strong that it blew Jesse’s hat off. The cave slowly gained popularity among more explorers.

Most people are used to seeing a multitude of formations, called speleothems, decorating caves’ interiors. The most common of these are stalactites and stalagmites—icicle-shaped formations that hang off the cave’s ceiling or rise from the ground, produced by precipitation of minerals from water dripping through the cave’s walls.

Wind Cave is very different from most caves in this regard. Because of its dry air, it contains very few stalactites and stalagmites, but has many other mineral formations that are rare and unique, like boxwork, frostwork, cave popcorn and dogtooth spar, among others.

Made of tiny blades of calcite, boxworks hang off the cave’s ceiling in the shape of irregularly formed honeycombs. Cave popcorn are calcite growths on its walls, usually where water seeps uniformly out of the limestone wall and precipitates the mineral.

Frostwork, most visually pleasing of all formations, usually grows on top of other formations like boxwork or cave popcorn. In Wind Cave, frostwork appears in areas with above average airflow.

Dogtooth spars are small spear-shaped calcite crystals that frequently line the pockets of limestone rocks. These are common to the Black Hills region and can also be found at the neighboring Jewel Cave National Monument.

Visitors who want to see the Wind Cave can do so by signing up for one of the park ranger-guided tours. There are several tours that cater to a person’s time availability and physical ability. The most common is the one-hour Garden of Eden Cave Tour. This gives visitors a sample of the Wind Cave attractions, including boxwork and cave popcorn. This is the shortest tour, and visitors enter and exit the cave by an elevator. The Natural Entrance Tour and the Fairgrounds Tour range from moderate to difficult, while the most strenuous one is the four-hour Wild Cave Tour, which includes crawling and exploring the less-developed trails.

Visitors can also sign up for the Candlelight Cave Tour to see how the early explorers saw the cave. This tour explores the less-lit and less-traveled parts of the cave.

Wind Cave National Park is a perfect place to include in your next vacation or road trip plan. With its variety of plants and wildlife, diverse landscapes and sensational geological formations, the park has something for everyone.

 

Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.


 

Caves and Waterfalls

Kanger Valley National Park, established in 1982, is one of the most picturesque parks in India. Located near Jagdalpur in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, the park is spread over 200 square kilometers along the Kanger river. The park is known for its heterogeneous landscapes—ranging from low flat areas to steep slopes, plateaus, valleys and streams—rich flora and fauna, waterfalls and subterranean limestone caves. It is one of the main hotspots of biodiversity in India.

There are many attractions in the Kanger Valley National Park. Visitors can explore its forests, caves and waterfalls on their own or through the Kanger Gypsy Jungle Safari organized by the park. Look out for the 533 floral species that the park hosts, or its diverse fauna, including leopards, barking deer, wild boars, flying squirrels, crocodiles, and different types of birds, including the famous state bird of Chhattisgarh, Bastar Hill Myna.

Not to be missed is the Tirathgarh Falls, also known as “Milky Fall,” due to its white color. This site offers beautiful views of water cascading over the surrounding hills, and is one of the most-visited waterfalls in Chhattisgarh.

Not all the beauty lie on the surface of the park. Kanger Valley National Park is also known for its underground limestone caves—Kotumsar, Kailash and Dandak.

While Kotumsar is one of the most biologically-explored caves in India, Kailash and Dandak boast of stunning stalactite and stalagmite formations. Kailash cave, for instance, has a huge stalagmite formation at its end in the shape of a Shivlinga, and its hollow walls make incredible musical sounds when struck by hand.

The best time to visit the park is November to June, as the caves are closed during the monsoon season due to frequent flooding.

—N.M.